To Build a Fire
|"To Build a Fire"|
|Genre(s)||Adventure, short story|
"To Build a Fire" is a short story by American author Jack London, published in two different versions of in 1902 and 1908. The 1908 story has become an often anthologized classic; the 1902 story describes a similar situation but has a different, less famous plot. The 1908 "To Build a Fire" is an oft-cited example of the naturalist movement that portrays the conflict of man vs. nature. It also reflects what London learned in the Yukon Territory.
Summary of 1908 story
At 9:00 on an extremely cold winter morning (−75 °F or −59 °C), an unnamed man leaves the Yukon Trail after being warned of the dangers of the trip by locals. With nine hours of hiking ahead of him, the man is expecting to meet his associates ("the boys") at a mining claim in Henderson Creek by 6:00 p.m. that evening. The man is accompanied only by a large husky dog, whose instincts tell it that the weather is too cold for traveling. However, the weather does not deter the man, a relative newcomer to the Yukon, even though the water vapor in the man's exhaled breaths and the saliva from the tobacco he is chewing have frozen his mouth shut. As he hikes along a creek, he takes care to avoid pockets of unfrozen water hidden beneath thin layers of ice. He stops to build a fire and thaw out so he can eat his lunch, but after he begins hiking again, he breaks through the ice and soaks his feet and lower legs.
More angry over the accident than concerned for his own safety, the man builds a fire under a tree to dry his clothes as sensation begins to fade from his extremities. As he pulls twigs from the nearby underbrush to feed the fire, the resulting vibrations eventually cause the snow on the tree's loaded boughs to tumble down, extinguishing the flames and frightening the man for the first time. He gathers materials for a new fire and lights it with great difficulty, burning himself with his matches in the process, but accidentally pokes it apart while trying to remove a piece of moss. He seizes hold of the dog, planning to kill it and use the carcass for warmth; however, he finds that he can neither draw his knife nor strangle the animal with his frozen hands. In a final desperate attempt to warm himself up, the man tries to run along the trail but repeatedly stumbles and falls. Finally understanding the truth of the local residents' warnings about the cold, the man succumbs to hypothermia and dies, imagining himself to be with "the boys" as they find his body the next day.
The dog does not understand the situation at first, but after it catches the smell of death, it howls for a while and then trots off toward the camp, where it knows it can get food and fire.
The earlier version was first published in The Youth's Companion on May 29, 1902. It differs in some details, though the general structure and story line are similar; the primary differences are as follows: in the first version it is not so cold, there is no dog, the fire is not doused, and the man (named Tom Vincent) suffers some permanent frostbite damage but survives, sadder but wiser.
- Construire un feu (1927-1928) is an early short film by Claude Autant-Lara.
- To Build a Fire (1969) was made by David Cobham, with Ian Hogg as the man and Orson Welles as the narrator.
- To Build a Fire (2003) is a French version starring Olivier Pagès.
- To Build a Fire (2008) is an American version with a modified story.
- To Build a Fire (2016) is an animated short film directed by Fx Goby.
- "The Little Match Girl", a short story by Hans Christian Andersen about a child dying of hypothermia
- "The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree" (1876), a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- "To Build a Fire" Study Guide at What So Proudly We Hail Curriculum. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- London, Jack (August 1908). "To Build a Fire". The Century Magazine. 76. Full text of the famous second version, published for an adult audience.
- London, Jack (May 29, 1902). "To Build a Fire". The Youth's Companion. London.Sonoma.edu.
- London, Jack (May 29, 1902). "To Build a Fire". Youth's Companion. JackLondons.net. Full text of the first, more juvenile version.
- Internet Movie Database
- Internet Movie Database
- Official Animation short film Website
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